For the last nine months, Cathy Myers has been running a campaign with what many saw as an insurmountable end goal: defeating Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan. But on Wednesday, the Wisconsin Democrat’s bid to oust one of the most powerful men in American politics was jolted by a tectonic political shift when the 10-term congressman announced his decision to retire at the end of the term. Republicans are now scrambling to field a candidate to run for the seat, which is viewed as more competitive without the speaker on the ballot. Myers says her campaign is already feeling the change in energy. She raised more than $10,000 in the 24 hours following Ryan’s announcement, making it one of her top five fundraising days so far. But before she can vie to flip the district, Myers faces a primary battle against Randy Bryce, an ironworker who has racked up big-name endorsements and lots of campaign cash. The 55-year-old school board member and former teacher spoke to Refinery29 about the opportunities — and challenges — ahead in her uphill bid for Congress.
Where were you when you got the news of the retirement and what was your reaction?
“I was reading my newspaper and drinking coffee and I was just sort of getting my head into the game and wrapping my head around the day. My phone started to go off and I realised it was going to be a very different day than what I had intended!”
What has the last day of the campaign been like?
"We have seen a significant uptick in donations, interest again in the race. The race was of national interest in the first place. Now I think that people might have theorised at one point about the Democrats taking the seat. Not they feel like it's really tangible that it really is within their grasp more so than ever."
First you’d have to win the primary. Your opponent Randy Bryce, a fellow Democrat, has a lot of establishment support and has far outraised you as of the last fundraising deadline. What’s your message to voters and to donors about why they should support your bid and why you can win, especially in the midst of hotly contested midterms nationwide?
“I think I can win because I have the experience of winning before, unlike my primary opponent who has lost three elections and has never cleared 40%. Our campaign is going to be the largest grassroots organisation in the country. A case we are going to make to our voters is about service and leadership. I have dedicated my life to the service of my community. I have been on the Janesville School Board, I have served on city committee, I have been my union president and vice president and led a strike centre when we were on strike. [Voters are] going to want not just someone who can win but someone who can offer some leadership and service. People feel the have not been served by Paul Ryan and so they are really hungry for someone who understands what life is like and who is willing to take their stories and concerns to Washington.”
This isn’t the only race that has pit a man backed by the establishment with a woman who has grassroots support as you say — there was the Illinois race between Rep. Dan Lipinski and Marie Newman. Do you think that the Democratic establishment is doing enough to support female candidates like you in general?
“I don’t know if the establishment is focusing on women or not. They haven’t done me any favours. But no matter what the Washington insiders decide to do about this race we’re just going to go out and talk to people and make our case. Whatever manoeuvres they make really do not affect what we do.”
“I do support the striking teachers and I know what a hard decision it is and what a difficult decision that is to make as a teacher. It really has to be the final straw for a teacher to go on strike. The case they’re making about the treatment of teachers and about the ability to attract and retain quality teachers and about having enough people in the classroom those are all student conditions as well. And so when teachers get to that point where they strike that means things are really bad for students as well.”
Another issue in your campaign that is in the news this week, and actually ties into another former speaker, is legalization of marijuana. Former Republican John Boehner announced that he reversed his position and now supports it. I know this is a position that you support. More Democrats are coming on board with voicing support, including Cynthia Nixon in her bid for governor of New York. Do you think legalizing marijuana should be a defining or litmus test issue for Democrats?
“I think it’s an important issue to the voters, especially to the young voters. Young and old have come to understand that the laws surrounding marijuana have been used to incarcerate minority populations and I think they see not only how it’s been used in that political way, but there are also a lot of people who have serious health issues who could be helped by it. Our younger folks have seen their peers in many cases succumb to the opioid crisis. And I think the see marijuana as a great alternative to alleviate people's’ pain that is non addictive. And so they view that as a solution to an important problem that we are going to have to tackle in this country.”
Speaker Ryan’s decision to retire sets off a scramble for leadership in the Republican Party. There have been calls in the Democratic Party too for a change in leadership. If you were elected would you support Nancy Pelosi as leader or would you support a change in direction?
“I am a firm believer in competition, obviously, because I believe in primaries. I think that primaries and competition force us to look at the issues that we face and talk about the direction we want to go and the vision that we have and the priorities that we made. When I get there, if there are other people besides Mrs. Pelosi who want the job or who are interested in the job I will listen to everybody and then I will assess who I think has the strongest vision for the country and for the party.”
What's your message to women who are fired up this year and considering going into politics?
“One of the things that women face is kind of an internalisation that somehow or another they're not qualified. That they don't necessarily have something to contribute. And I would tell them to shut down those inner voices and believe in themselves and run.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Read these stories next: